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Random numbers are fun. Really they are. They are at the heart of gambling for sure but they are also a key part of what is called a Monte Carlo Simulation. These simulations are used for all sorts of scientific, financial, engineering and other simulations. They are an attempt to figure the effects of chance, of random reactions, to a formula/algorithm or plan. As such they are an important tool in many fields. But of course Monte Carlo refers to the famous casino so its association with gambling is pretty much unavoidable. This even though the term originated with a group of nuclear researchers that included the computer pioneer John von Neumann. And as it turns out I have a couple of gambling simulations in mind that I think make interesting projects.
The first was inspired by this slot machine simulator that I found as a result of a Tweet on Twitter.
It’s pretty fancy and clearly some serious research went into it. Just for fun I decided to create a very simple version of a slot machine simulation. I didn’t do much research so it’s not as scientific but it was fun to do. The form is below and you can see that I used textboxes to allow the user to specify the starting amount, how much to bet on each spin and how many spins to do. The payoff rate I hard coded in but could easily be another variable the user could set. The payoffs is determined by an other random number and could be a lot more fancy. Probably should be.
1: private void button1_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
3: int bankRoll = Int16.Parse( this.textBox1.Text);
4: int bet = Int16.Parse(this.textBox2.Text);
5: int cnt = Int16.Parse(this.textBox3.Text);
6: Random r = new Random();
7: for (int i = 0; i < cnt && bankRoll >= bet; i++)
9: if (r.Next(100) > 90)
11: bankRoll += r.Next(100);
14: bankRoll -= bet;
16: this.label1.Text = bankRoll.ToString();
Making this better is an exercise for the student. I hope to write this up in some more detail at a future date but I’m on vacation so it will wait. But there are a couple of things I do like about it. One is that I get to use a more complex terminating clause than we often see in an early student project. It allows for some discussion about the roll of negative numbers in loops. Do you allow them? It depends on the application doesn’t it? Slot machines typically do not grant credit. And of course there are those random numbers to look at so you can get into all sorts of discussions about random numbers, statistics and streaks. Why do you sometimes win? Good stuff.
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Do beginners even need to learn sorting algorithms? Let’s face it most modern programming environments have a sort function built in. In the so-called real world just about the only people who write sorting algorithms have PhDs in math or computer science and have likely published papers in peer reviewed journals on the sorting subject. So why take up time in a first programming course to talk about sorting? Because its good for them! Well sort of.
I was looking through the first textbook I wrote some 11 years ago and finding that it include both the bubble and selections sorts. Now these are terribly performing sorts. No one uses these. Quick sort perhaps. Maybe Insertion sort. Bubble sort? What was I thinking! As best I can recall I was thinking about helping explain how arrays worked with loops. It was more about developing an algorithm and seeing how it worked with real (or realish) data. Oh and if I recall correctly, the publisher asked me to make sure I covered sorting and searching. But maybe that is me trying to blame someone else. In a more advanced course one would use different sorting algorithms to learn about algorithm complexity, performance and probably also discuss Big-O notation. That works as a good excuse to talk about different sorting algorithms for many.
Students understand what sorting is all about. Well they don’t understand all of what it is about but at least if you ask students to sort data by hand they can usually do it. In fact asking students to sort data, perhaps on index cards, and asking them to think through the process they use can be very helpful. This helps them understand the complexity. The value though is really about understanding algorithm creation and translating that into code. Having to involved a number of important concepts like arrays, loops, and decision structures is also a good thing.
I think today I would teach the Quick Sort. It has all the goodness of other sort PLUS it involves recursion. Recursion is still a bit of magic to me. What it has taken me a while to really appreciate recursion I do now. The typical recursion example is really looping – things like calculating the Fibonacci Sequence. That’s not a bad thing but an application that requires recursion is better, my opinion, for getting students to really appreciate its power.
But I wonder if there are better algorithms to use as teaching tools? We, the teaching community, should probably be looking for some. Perhaps some that students are actually likely to have to implement some day. What do you think? Are sort algorithms essential? Why? What sort or sorts do you think students should learn? Or is there a better problem that solves the same issues in learning programming and algorithm development?